The leather jacket has come a long way in the past 70 years. Once a hallmark of rebellion, this rock ‘n’ roll favourite has earned itself a place as one of menswear’s coolest pieces of outerwear. Back in the 1950s it was made famous by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but today you don’t need to be a chain-smoking biker with a Brylcreem’d pompadour in order to pull one off.
That said, don’t think for a second the leather jacket has lost any of its attitude over the years. It might boast the same level of versatility as a good pair of jeans or well-made boots, but this cowhide classic is still badass through and through.
While it is definitely one of the best clothing purchases you’re ever likely to make, it can also be one of the trickiest. So, before you get yourself leathered up, here’s everything you need to know about fashion’s favourite bad-boy icon.
Picking The Right Style Of Leather Jacket
Not all leather jackets are created equal. Different styles can be better or worse suited to certain wardrobes. Below are the most common types of leather jacket you’re likely to come across, and how you can tell them apart.
If you were to look up the term “leather jacket” in an illustrated encyclopedia, this would most likely be the style pictured. Immortalised by Marlon Brando in the seminal film The Wild One (above), this classic motorcycle jacket features an angled front zipper, wide lapels and plenty of buckles and zips. Best worn with slim black jeans and Chelsea boots.
Of all the leather jacket styles out there, the bomber is probably the most casual. This makes it an excellent entry point for those who perhaps feel a little self-conscious about venturing into the world of leather. Pair it with selvedge denim and white sneakers for a simple everyday outfit.
So-called due to its links to motorcycle racing, the cafe racer is on the more minimal end of the leather jacket style spectrum. Featuring a stand collar, front zip and overall uncluttered design, this clean-cut classic is the perfect accompaniment to wool trousers, knitwear and Derby shoes.
While very similar to the bomber in terms of looks, the flight jacket carries the added bonus of a shearling collar that was originally designed to keep World War II pilots warm when flying at altitude in open cockpits. Be warned though, the addition of thick shearling and a lined inner make it a winter coat first and foremost. If you’re looking for something you can wear all year round you might be better opting for something slightly less bulky.
The main difference between the utility or “fatigue” jacket is its increased length and front pockets. It’s a countryside classic and as timeless as it is functional. A laid-back all-rounder that can take you from autumn through to summer and beyond.
Other Purchasing Considerations
Not all leather jackets are, y’know, leather. The material tends to be expensive and is about as vegan-friendly as a ribeye steak, which is why alternatives have been around for a long time. Faux leather jackets let you wear the same iconic styles at a fraction of the prices of real leather and without accusations of animal cruelty. At the high-street end, that usually means poor quality, certainly compared to the real thing, but even at the designer level, synthetic leather jackets come with their own baggage, because they’re usually made from polyurethane.
A more sustainable option is on the horizon: mushroom leather. Known as mycellium, this next-gen fabric is made from the root section of mushrooms and as well as having a similar waxy texture, it’s biodegradable and sustainable. The first products are slowly coming to market but we haven’t yet seen a mushroom biker.
Ok, the archetypal leather jacket usually comes in black, from Marlon Brando right through to The Matrix. It’s classic, goes with almost everything and ages like a dream. But you do have options. Brown is the other obvious choice, with traditional flight jackets and 70s-style blazers holding the colour particularly well.
Less common is tan, which brings a Western vibe, and burgundy, which Tyler Durden made his own. Look hard enough and you’ll also find olive green, wine red, light grey and the odd white leather jacket – but black is a classic for a reason.
Leather jacket styles tend to follow textbook designs, but there are variations on the classics. Take the biker, for example. You can find fairly minimal designs and others that throw in every design detail in the book: zipped cuffs, quilted shoulders, buckled belt and studs on the back. Other designs might carry epaulettes on the shoulders or padded elbows.
Unless you’re an actual motorcyclist, this is all a matter of taste, but in our humble opinion, less is more.
The Best Brands For Leather Jackets
When it comes to leather, you want to buy from a brand with a pedigree. This is far from one of the cheapest purchases you’ll ever make, but if you pick your jacket wisely it will be one of your most worthwhile investments.
AllSaints’ grungy, moody aesthetic lends itself perfectly to the leather jacket. This considered it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the London-born brand is known for producing some of the sleekest and most stylish options to be found. Look out for cropped cuts, distressed finishes and plenty of attitude.
At the high end of the high street is Reiss, a British clothing chain with a knack for hitting the sweet spot between fashionable and timeless. This makes it a solid choice when it comes to buying a reasonably-priced leather jacket that doesn’t compromise on style or build quality. Expect minimalist designs, form-flattering cuts and premium materials as standard.
The Jacket Maker
The Jacket Maker is a direct-to-consumer brand that combines old-world bespoke tailoring techniques with the finest raw materials to make both custom and ready-to-wear leather jackets. Cutting out the middleman allows the brand to offer a premium product at an accessible price point, with each and every style handmade using full-grain leather and YKK zippers.
Not only that, The Jacket Maker also offers a made-to-measure service for a perfect fit, as well as a bespoke experience that allows you to choose everything from size and fit through to style, colour and personalisation such as the addition of custom embroidery or logos for a truly one-of-a-kind piece.
If money is of no concern in your hunt for the perfect leather jacket, you’d struggle to find better than Saint Laurent. The French fashion house’s biker jacket is one of the most iconic pieces of premium menswear there is, boasting buttery-soft Italian leather, a slim-fit silhouette and luxurious satin lining.
Schott’s “Perfecto” leather biker jacket was the garment that started it all. Worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (above) it quickly achieved iconic status and retains it to this day. If you’re looking for the original and best, Schott is the brand to buy from.
Buck Mason takes classic Americana staples and updates them for the modern man. The leather jacket sits perfectly within this remit, being a core piece of US subcultures such as greasers, punks and bikers. Offering a number of timeless silhouettes, including bomber, aviator and biker cuts, each piece is crafted from the finest hides and made in factories which are constantly monitored and reviewed to ensure the highest standards of construction as well as ethical working practices.
With a background in motorcycle apparel, Belstaff is one UK brand that really knows its way around a good leather jacket. These belted beauties have been worn by everyone from David Beckham to Brad Pitt, further solidifying the label’s iconic status. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
Built from a need for outdoors clothing that could withstand anything the environment threw at it, Taylor Stitch produces high-quality pieces that are designed to last. It’s leather jackets are the epitome of this mantra, cut from the very best hide (including limited quantity deadstock materials) and handmade on US soil. These are future family heirlooms if you look after them.
Buying a Vintage Leather Jacket
One of the best things about owning a leather jacket is the patina that develops on the material over time – the creases and fades in the material that make each piece unique. They usually take years to develop, but a quick way to get the look is to buy vintage.
Visit a retro clothing store, market stall, car boot sale or vintage revival and you’ll find well-made styles that have already aged like a good single malt. Look for rips in the leather and check that the lining hasn’t come away from the jacket, but don’t worry too much. The mileage is part of the appeal.
Second-hand marketplaces like Beyond Retro, Grailed and Vestiaire Collective are also excellent starting places.
Caring For A Leather Jacket
A leather jacket is a true investment piece, but if you want it to last you’ll need to make sure to care for it properly. Thankfully, that’s rather easy to do.
All you really need to keep that leather clean, soft and supple is a cloth, some water and a natural leather conditioner, free from colouring or nasty chemicals.
First, remove any dirt or marks using the cloth and a bit of water. Once that’s done, use another cloth to apply a small amount of the conditioner to the fabric, working it in using circular motions. Repeat this across the entire surface of the garment until it’s suitably nourished, then remove any excess with a paper towel.